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Opinion Guess what: Republicans may be about to raise your taxes

House GOP leaders on Nov. 2 proposed legislation that would overhaul the U.S. tax code. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

Before Republicans released their tax-cut plan, some of us predicted that while they would describe it as a “middle-class tax cut,” their bill would likely shower enormous benefits on the wealthy and corporations while giving a pittance to the middle class. They’d follow George W. Bush’s formula, which was to give something to ordinary folks, even if the benefits to most people were minuscule compared with what the rich would get.

Now that we have the details, it turns out that criticism was not exactly correct. In fact, while their plan is indeed centered on cuts for the wealthy and corporations, they’re giving benefits only to some taxpayers. And — as we are learning from a host of new analyses that have been released — a lot of those in the middle class (and the upper-middle class, and even the upper class) will actually see their taxes increase.

The Republican plan cuts some taxes and eliminates some deductions, which means that whether you win or lose depends on your particular situation. For instance, the standard deduction will be almost doubled, which is good if you don’t itemize. But if you do — and if you have a large family so you benefit from personal exemptions (which are eliminated), or you rely on deductions for things such as state and local taxes, student loan interest, and medical expenses — you could find yourself with a larger tax bill.

On average, the bill does what you’d expect from a Republican plan, giving modest benefits to those at the bottom and the middle, and large benefits to those at the top, in what resembles an exponential curve (see this nice chart from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities). But that’s on average. On an individual basis, some people will get cuts and some people will get increases.

The Republican plan is also full of less-noticed provisions that could prove damaging to some people and even catastrophic for others. Teachers, for instance, will no longer be able to deduct what they spend out of pocket on materials for their classrooms. Another change would require that graduate students who get tuition waivers, as most PhD students do, would have to pay taxes on the waivers as though they were income, requiring them to come up with thousands of dollars to pay the government for “income” they saw only in the form of permission to attend school. If that had been the law when I went to graduate school, either I would have had to live in my car or I would have dropped out (or never gone in the first place), and I’m sure that’s true for thousands of other people.

Millions of other people could see their taxes increase. Let’s start with an analysis by Ben Casselman and Jim Tankersley of the New York Times:

Nearly half of all middle-class families would pay more in taxes in 2026 than they would under current rules if the proposed House tax bill became law, and about one-third would pay more in 2018, according to a New York Times analysis, a striking finding for a bill promoted as a middle-class tax cut.
President Trump and congressional Republicans have pitched the plan unveiled last week as a tax cut for most Americans. But millions of middle-class families — particularly those with children — would see an immediate tax increase, averaging about $2,000. Among the hardest-hit under the plan would be some of the most vulnerable taxpayers: those with huge out-of-pocket medical expenses.
By 2026, 45 percent of middle-class families would pay more than what they would under the existing tax system.

Republicans will argue that those people will end up okay, because the corporate tax cuts will eventually produce a huge increase in growth and wages. Even if you’re being generous to this claim, the promised payoff is hypothetical. At some point in the future it might happen, while these tax increases are direct and assured.

Democrats call the GOP tax plan a “scam,” saying a cut to the student loan interest deduction program would have major implications. (Video: Reuters)

Now let’s look at an analysis by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Its data shows that in 2018, 8 percent of taxpayers will see a tax increase. Since some provisions are set to expire, by 2027, 18 percent of taxpayers will be paying more than they do now.

But that’s only part of the story. It turns out that the groups hit hardest are those in the middle and upper-middle class. Looking at the 2027 figures, among those in the middle quintile (those with average incomes of $72,000), 21 percent will be paying more than they do now. In the next highest quintile (average incomes of $115,900), 24 percent will be paying higher taxes. In the next highest (average incomes of $207,000), 33 percent will be paying higher taxes.

How many people does that add up to? This morning, a congressional staffer on the minority staff of the Senate Budget Committee tweeted figures based on Joint Committee on Taxation numbers showing that by 2027, 100 million households would see either a tax increase or no tax cut, 36 million would see a tax increase of at least $100, and 23 million would see an increase of at least $500.

Those figures show that many moderately wealthy and even very wealthy people will see their tax bills rise. And as Paul Krugman points out today, there is a discernible pattern:

Even among high-income Americans, the plan seems designed to reward those who don’t work for a living — or more precisely, the less you actually do to earn your income, the bigger your tax break. Business owners would owe less in taxes than high-earning professionals; passive investors, who just sit there and collect dividends, would owe less than those who at least run their businesses. And wealthy heirs, who did nothing to earn their wealth except choose the right parents, would pay no taxes at all.

One way to look at this is that it’s a tribute to the Republicans’ ambition. They could have done what they did when Bush was president: cut a bunch of taxes, pay for it with borrowing, and leave it at that, with no one losing in the short run even if the wealthy gained a lot more than everyone else. This time they wanted to remake the tax code, but in doing so they ended up picking a lot of winners and losers.

There are more analyses of the Republican plan coming, and they may differ a bit here and there depending on the assumptions they use. But the basic conclusion is becoming clear: Many, many people — into the millions or even tens of millions — will be paying higher taxes under the Republican bill.